Floods fail to dampen muster

Melissa WilliamsCountryman

Cattle mustering in the Gascoyne is well underway and many pastoralists have been pleasantly surprised with the high numbers coming in and good stock condition; a year after record-breaking floods ripped through the area causing much devastation.

Reports from stations along the Gascoyne River indicate that the December 2010 floods did not claim as many cattle as first feared and subsequent good rainfall during the past 12 months has led to bumper feed throughout much of the catchment.

With cattle in top condition, reports that the live export trade had started to rebound relatively strongly after the lifting of the ban on sales to Indonesia and cattle prices edging up, many Gascoyne pastoralists were optimistic about the future of the industry.

A potential dampener is the heavy weight of cattle in the region this year, making some animals ineligible for the live export trade to Indonesia. But strong demand from other export markets and lack of southern cattle supplies driving solid demand in the domestic market are expected to help negate this hiccup.

David and Genevieve Robinson have started the first big muster on their Doorawarrah station since last year's floods and said the majority of the Brahman herd had survived with only minor stock losses.

"We were not sure what our losses would be because of the enormous flow of the river and the vast areas that were underwater," Mr Robinson said. "But it appears we have come off lightly and our neighbours' herds also appear to have come out of the floods OK."

Nearby Bidgemia station owner Hamish McTaggart told ABC Radio last week he was pleased with the stock numbers coming in during the family's annual muster and the cattle looked fantastic. Mr Robinson said Doorawarrah had received 800mm of rain since December 2010 to break a decade-long drought and the station's cattle were in top condition.

"Our export-type cattle have proved they are highly adapted to the environment and climate we live in, having survived 10 years of drought and then a massive flood event with minimal losses," he said.

Mr Robinson said he held off mustering cattle while the live export ban to Indonesia was in place and was disappointed that prices had dropped by up to 75 per cent in the wake of the ban.

But he said prices were now staring to rise again and other markets had come online for pastoral cattle, with his sale stock destined for the domestic trade and live shipment to markets such as Israel and Turkey.

Mr Robinson said some of his older cattle were heavier than the Indonesian live export upper liveweight limit of 350kg, but he intended to supply this market during the summer months with lighter-weight stock.

"The Indonesian live export market is important to this region and I am pleased to see that this trade appears to be coming back stronger than ever after the ban was lifted," he said.

Mt Augustus station owner Don Hammarquist said about 50 per cent of pastoralists in the Gascoyne region relied on the live export trade with Indonesia, making it a vital market for the long term. He aims to market cattle into the live trade and to the southern feeder cattle market, mostly around Geraldton.

While not directly hit by widespread flooding at Mt Augustus last year, Mr Hammarquist said his stock numbers were down during mustering this month on the back of a prolonged and nasty dry spell leading up to several severe storms that occurred about the same time of the December floods and poor calving percentages.

"Before the storms we experienced four years of lean rainfall and we offloaded a lot of cattle," he said.

"Now that the season has turned a bit more normal, we have been having trouble locating stock this season and our breeder numbers appear to be about 40 per cent down on average.

"But the cattle we have mustered have been excellent quality, with some going to the restaurant trade, some to live export and some to the feedlot market."

Pastoralists and Graziers Association executive officer Ian Randles said many pastoralists in the Gascoyne area were experiencing problems with overweight cattle that no longer met the requirements of the Indonesian live trade.

He said although there were alternative markets available to these cattle producers, the Indonesian trade was important to the region because it offered a price premium.

"During the 10-week suspension of the Indonesian trade, cattle were on good feed for the first time in many years and - because they couldn't be sold - they are now overweight and can't access that market," he said.

"These cattle are being sold into other export markets, but are missing out on a 20 to 30c/kg premium."

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